Democracy 4: Another Greek Tragedy - How to Lose Elections

10/11/2011 14:56 GMT | Updated 08/01/2012 10:12 GMT

As the proposed referendum on a Greek bail-out goes out the window, I think it is time to reflect on this truly tragic moment, in which the people of a nation that invented democracy are not even given the theroetical chance to vote on a measure that will affect their lives for the next ten years.

It is important to remember that any ancient Greek who experienced real democracy would have hardly felt gratitude at getting a say in so momentous a decision, because they took it for granted that they could affect every decision in real terms all the time. How, in a democracy, could any set of people get to determine what "the people" as a whole got a say on? If we want real democracy, we - like the ancient Athenians - need to lose elections, not in the sense of not winning, in the sense of getting rid of.

It is understandably a bit of a shocker to most people to learn that in Athenian democracy there were very few elections. This is because the Athenians knew what we're only slowly beginning to figure out: elections favour the wealthy, the loquacious and the well-connected, and, really, why would you put the sort of tool who usually wins a popularity contest in charge of your country?

The Athenians thus only held elections for those posts in which they considered that it was absolutely vital that the successful candidate possess a certain skill-set: the generals (strategoi) of whom there were ten elected every year, the treasurers (again ten elected yearly), embassies and officials who were elected in time of emergency to organise the city's defences. These positions were generally won by the wealthy and privileged, in fact, few people who were not wealthy ever coveted them, perhaps unsurprisingly, as holding such a position was fraught with risk and brought little direct reward.

Case in point: the ten treasurers were once accused of embezzlement and, in accordance with Athenian law, tried and executed one by one (fortunately for the tenth treasurer and unfortunately for the other nine, the book-keeping mistake that had led to their false accusation was discovered just in time to save him).

In a separate case, following a sea battle (the battle of Arginousai) the generals, due to stormy conditions did not venture forth to collect the many shipwrecked comrades floating about following the battle. When they returned to Athens the Assembly had all of those generals who they could lay hands on executed. This sort of harsh treatment was pretty normal at the time, with many cultures executing generals just for losing. The difference in Athens is who ordered it: not an elite cadre, but "the people". As this exemplifies, officials in Athens had very little in the way of power.

Every major decision was made by "the people" sitting in Assembly or in the law courts and only carried out by elected or randomly selected officials. So what did this Assembly look like? Was it a bunch of Bohemians waggling their fingers and searching for consensus a la Zuccotti Park? Nah. Athenians were pretty red-blooded and conservative and they knew that there was no way everyone was going to agree on anything.

Their meetings would have looked a bit like the crowd at Zuccotti Park though, because they met in one big enclosure on the Pnyx Hill, which held about 6000 people, or approximately 1/7 of Athen's citizen population. This was about adequate - sometimes too many people showed up and the latecomers had to be turned away, at other times attendance was as low as 5000.

Assembly was held four times a month (a month had 40 days back then). That meant about 1/7 of the population could go at any one time, but theoretically 4/7 could attend at least 1 Assembly a month. It was convened by an ever-rotating subset of some randomly selected officials known as the Council of Five Hundred, who also collected citizen submissions for issues they wanted to table. These submissions were usually open-ended. An official would announce the topic and citizens would speak for and against the motion as they saw fit. People would also propose changes or details. This took a long time, but not as long as you would think, because the crowd would generally harass or even forcibly remove anyone they thought was seriously wasting their time. Following the debate, the official would put the varying motions that had arisen from it to the crowd and citizens would vote on each motion by show of hands. An absolute majority carried the day. It was really that simple. And it was very difficult to rig, because bribing 6000 people is very expensive and extremely difficult to keep hidden. more thing...anyone who showed up to Assembly got paid to do so. Everyone there got ½ a drachma, which was about half what a carpenter or mason could expect to earn in a day, and most Assemblies did not take all day, so you could still get some work in afterwards. This meant that people who otherwise could not afford to take time off work to participate were enabled to do so. Socrates (newsflash: Socrates did not like democracy) complained bitterly about all of the "fullers, shoe-makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, merchants and traders" crowding the Assembly, while Aristotle (also no great fan of "people power") wrote "all citizens take part in this sort of government because of the predominance of the masses, and they participate and exercise their citizen rights because even the poor (tous aporous) are able to have leisure by receiving pay (misthos)".(1)

It does give people some serious food for thought though:

a) What about charismatic demagogues? All you need is some lunatic whipping people up...

b) Didn't this all work so well, because Athenians were pretty homogenous anyway? We all know they didn't let women and slaves in, and they weren't the friendliest to foreigners, either.

c) What happened when people kept forcing a vote back and forth over the same issue again and again?

d) Weren't they changing laws back and forth all the time and being frivolous?

e) You're talking 6000 people - there's like millions of people voting in places like the UK. We couldn't meet in the biggest football stadium, even if we could all get there.

f) The Athenians may have decided things right then because they didn't have mass communications influencing people. If you did that sort of thing today you'd have people submitting proposals and then blasting the airwaves telling everyone else what to think about it weeks in advance.

g) They seemed to like executing people...

Some of these are valid points (probably not the ones you are thinking of right now) and I will address them in coming segments. We have been trained to think of these as insurmountable difficulties, but the truth is that they were efficiently dealt with by a group of people who mostly couldn't read and thought that the planets circled the earth on tracks of crystal.

(1) Pol. 1293a3-7, quoted in M.M. Markle, "Jury Pay and Assembly Pay at Athens", in Rhodes ed., Athenian Democracy, (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 95, at 102.